Music

Todd Rundgren reflects on the genius of the Beatles ahead of Phoenix tribute show

There are a number of reasons Todd Rundgren is drawn to a package tour like “It Was 50 Years Ago Today: A Tribute to the Beatles.”

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“One is to get it out of your system,” he says, with a laugh.

“When you grow up with the Beatles and you realize you wouldn’t be in the music business, likely, except for the Beatles and the formula that they came up with, it’s just embedded in you in a way. And it just feels kind of natural to do the material.”

It’s also easier than doing his own solo tour, which he’ll be undertaking after the tribute that brings him to Phoenix to play the Celebrity Theater with Christopher Cross, Denny Laine, Jason Scheff of Chicago and Badfinger featuring Joey Molland.

“I don’t have to sing the entire show,” he says. “So it’s not as strenuous in a way.”

And it’s a good exposure gig.

“There are five headliners, and they all have fans,” Rundgren says. “So we get exposed to each other’s fan base. For better or worse.”

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Saluting the Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’

The last time Rundgren came through Phoenix on an “It Was 50 Years Ago Today” tour was in 2019, celebrating the Beatles’ self-titled album more commonly known as “The White Album.”

This time out, they’re focusing on two iconic albums — “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” — that Rundgren thinks of as the “sweet spot” in his history with the Beatles.

“Your feelings about the Beatles usually parallel their career and the age that you were at when it took place,” he says.

His first exposure to the Beatles, for example, was in junior high, and by the time they broke up, he was out of school and making records of his own at the helm of a psychedelic pop group out of Philadelphia called Nazz.

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Why this was the Beatles’ ‘sweet spot’

“So the earlier records, you’re just naturally more naive and you accept them in a way that’s different than when you’ve become a little bit more jaded and you hear about the Beatles fighting with each other,” Rundgren says.

“And suddenly you realize it isn’t as magical as you might have thought it was. So the albums ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’ came out in kind of the sweet spot.”

“Rubber Soul” came out in 1965 while he was in his senior year of high school. “Revolver” hit the streets in 1966, the year he graduated.

“I remember the reverence with which we listened to those records,” he says, with a laugh.

“You wouldn’t let anything disturb you and you’d listen to the albums from end to end, sometimes several times over. We were so kind with the progress that they were making as songwriters.”

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Beatles innovative new genres of music

To Rundgren’s ears, the Beatles’ debut single, “Love Me Do,” released in 1962, is not that far removed from something Buddy Holly might have written in the ’50s.

Four years later, with “Revolver,” they’re “inventing new genres of music,” Rundgren says.

“They’re inventing psychedelic rock. Classical rock. They’re doing pop songs with sitars and songs that sound like French cabaret, things like that. They were stylistically unafraid of anything.”

Rundgren says, it was “really exciting,” as opposed to how the music they were doing towards the end of their career felt.

“They’re no longer really writing together much, and it’s becoming pretty obvious because the material is so different,” he says.

“The songs are so different from each other in style. And they’re kind of running out of ideas. That’s that’s why they did a record like ‘Get Back,’ because it was supposed to be a roots record. So ‘Rubber Soul’ ‘ and ‘Revolver’ are essentially them kind of peaking.”

After “Revolver,” they stopped touring.

“And that meant they weren’t forced to be together on the road and write together to fill the time,” Rundgren says. “That meant that they were always at their own homes, writing alone and bringing their ideas to the studio.”

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What to expect from ‘It Was 50 Years Ago Today’

Although the focus of this tour is on the “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” albums, they’re not performing the entire albums.

“We’re focusing more on the songs,” Rundgren says.

“They used to come up with records so quickly in those days. So those records weren’t even a year apart. In that sense, you can almost see them blending together in your mind, because as soon as you had absorbed one of them , the other one comes out.”

There are certain advantages that come with approaching the songs on “Revolver” in 2022 as opposed to 1966, when the Beatles stopped touring.

“We have the advantage of modern technologies and even having acquired original sounds from the recordings themselves through circuitous means,” Rundgren says.

They have the isolated tape loops from “Tomorrow Never Knows,” for instance, and can drop them into their performance.

“That makes it easier for us to reproduce most of what was on the original record,” Rundgren says.

“Of course, nobody’s playing a sitar. Somebody’s playing a keyboard sample that sounds like a sitar.”

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‘We just pretend we’re the Beatles’

They’ve done the best to get the songs as close as possible to the recorded versions.

“We have the same kind of reverence the audience has for the songs,” Rundgren says.

“So we don’t try and rearrange them at all. We try and do them as literally as we can possibly pretend to figure out. And then we just we’re the Beatles.”

Rundgren laughs at the idea of ​​pretending, but that is, in essence, what they’re doing.

Todd Rundgren circa 2000.

Todd Rundgren circa 2000.

“You’re, in some sense, going back to your young and naive days, when the Beatles were the all and everything and you did anything the Beatles did,” he says.

“The Beatles started smoking pot, that’s what you did. The Beatles dropped acid, that’s what you did. The Beatles go to India, you can’t go to India, but you can start dressing in Indian clothes.”

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How the Beatles drove the culture

The Beatles also drove the culture, inspiring countless acts to do their own best work.

“Other people would develop genres that the Beatles only toyed with,” Rundgren says.

“A song like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ started the whole classical rock genre for bands like the Left Banke. They would drop an example of something, some weird combination of styles, and another band would make a career out of it.”

In Rundgren’s case, the Beatles provided a songwriting workshop.

“They were broadly influenced, which not a lot of musicians were,” he says.

“They obviously listened to a lot of music. And that enabled them to incorporate all these ideas.”

They also inspired him to put the effort in to making better music.

“You know, the Beatles are considered this sort of lightning-in-a-bottle thing,” he says.

Ringo Starr and Todd Rundgren in 2014.

Ringo Starr and Todd Rundgren in 2014.

“And there was a certain unrepeatable combination of influences happening that made the Beatles seem better than everyone else. But it wasn’t just because of some natural, hard-to-identify thing. They put a lot of work into what they did. They took their songwriting seriously. They took their playing seriously.”

They raised the bar for songwriting in rock ‘n’ roll and Rundgren saw that as a challenge.

“The impact that had on me was you don’t really have to imitate the Beatles to strip for a certain quality of songwriting,” he says.

“And that influenced me in the long long run, to recognize good songwriting, and to try and emulate good songwriting, as opposed to just, you know, chords and words. The Beatles would take their lyrics into places where most people had not gone before. And it set the bar at a certain place that all songwriters would aspire to.”

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It Was 50 Years Ago Today

When: 7:30 pm Wednesday, June 1.

Where: Celebrity Theatre, 440 N. 32nd St., Phoenix.

Admission: $40-$100.

Details: 602-267-1600, celebritytheatre.com.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EddyMasley.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Todd Rundgren reflects on the Beatles as tribute tour hits Phoenix

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